Sunday, February 12, 2012

February 12: Taj Mahal, "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)"

Artist: Taj Mahal
Song: "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)"
Album: The Natch'l Blues
Year: 1968

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When one considers the genre of the blues, though there has certainly been a fair amount of variation in style over the years, one can argue that an overwhelming majority of artists find their "style," and stay within that realm.  This is not to say that a Chicago-style bluesman won't every have a more Delta-blues type song; but in most cases, the catalog of even the finest blues player is a rather narrow overall look at the world of blues.  However, this reality is rarely seen due to the fact that there are only a handful of performers in history who seem to have made it their job to bring all of the elements and styles of blues together as one, and it is this ability that makes the music of Taj Mahal some of the most enjoyable and diverse that one can find.  Truth be told, the sheer level of sonic diversity one finds across his catalog is far beyond that of nearly any other artist, regardless of genre.  Adding to this the fact that he has been recording for more than four decades, and it is almost impossible to find a single album to use as a "starting point" in his music, let alone pointing to a single song as being able to define his sound.  In fact, with the variety in styles and sounds that can be found in his recorded catalog, it is truly impossible to sum it up in a single track, and yet one can understand the overall tone and eclectic approach that Taj Mahal puts into his songs by hearing his iconic 1968 recording, "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)."

From the moment that "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)" begins, there is an energy and sound that almost instantly gives it a tone that falls more accurately into the world of pop music than that of blues.  However, due to the tone with which the musicians play, the blues-based roots are quite apparent, and yet the song retains a swing and mood that is completely unique.  A majority of the overall personality that one finds on "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)" comes from the playing of Taj Mahal, as his steel-bodied guitar gives the song a distinctive sound, and the sharp, emotive blows from his harmonica are second to none.  It is the groove that he quickly establishes which makes the song outright irresistible, and this is also due to the masterful way in which he is blending blues, r&b, soul, and even a bit of funk into a singular sound.  Adding to this is the perfectly balanced thump and groove of bassist Gary Moore, and the almost simplistic arrangement that dominates the verse section works wonderfully when it is contrasted to the solos and fills that come during the bridge and other sections of the song.  Though it is slightly buried in the mix, the organ part that underlies the music is being played by none other than Al Kooper, and this only adds to the overall tone that makes this one of the finest moments in blues history.

However, the allure behind "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)" is just as much coming from the vocals of Taj Mahal as it is from the combined musical sound on the track.  It is within his vocal performance where one can find the links to the more traditional sounds of the blues, as it is clear that many points on the song, he is giving himself completely to the groove and mood of the track, letting the music itself dictate both the pitch and intensity with which he sings.  At the same time, there is no denying that Taj Mahal's voice is anything less than superb, and in many ways, he shows a greater vocal range than a majority of his blues-based peers.  This factor allows "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)" to have a more distinctive sound, and at the same time, the rhythm with which he sings seems to be an element onto itself.  Though it is perhaps the most overlooked element of the song, once one gives it more attention, one can argue that the way he delivers many of the lines is actually an early sign of the rap style, as the concentration is far more on the pace of the words than the actual melody.  However, there is no question that the song is blues at its core, as the story Taj Mahal presents across the song is as timeless a tale as one can find.  Singing about how his love took a train ("the katy" is the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad) and left him behind, this is a theme that has been explored countless times, and it sounds as good as ever on this track.

Truth be told, it did not take long for "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)" to achieve a rather cult-like status, as it is without question one of the finest pieces that Taj Mahal ever wrote.  Over the decades, artists ranging from Albert King to Bonnie Raitt to Phish have recorded their own takes on the song, and yet none come close to the overall sonic power and allure of the original.  Yet the song became even more well known when it was used in the film The Blue Brothers, and it was well documented that the song was a personal favorite of one of the films' stars, John Belushi.  However, even without these later accolades and tributes, the song itself easily stands on its own as a brilliant moment in music history, as few other recordings have presented as enjoyable and perfectly balanced a mixture of so many different musical styles.  It is the way that the deep groove manages to increase the overall emotion of the song, and at the same time, the higher level of energy never undermines the core elements upon which the blues were built.  These ideas largely reflect the overall musical approach that Taj Mahal was experimenting with all across The Natch'l Blues, as he attempted to present the blues in yet another way, which he continues to do to this day.  Standing as a truly unique and absolutely essential piece of the development of modern music, there are few songs that are as outright enjoyable and musically diverse as what one can experience on Taj Mahal's magnificent 1968 song, "She Caught the Katy (And Left Me a Mule to Ride)."

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